Thursday, June 7, 2012


I rode my bike home from a post-work swim on Tuesday, taking my usual route. There was something unusual about the evening, however. With about an hour left until sunset, Venus was transiting the sun. I was wishing I'd planned ahead, but I hadn't: no pinhole projector, no "eclipse glasses," I was out of luck.

But wait! There on the corner of Fulton and Stuart I came upon an unexpected and welcome treasure: a fully equipped neighbor!

In their front yard, a couple I'd never met before had set up a pinhole projector using a camera tripod and a pair of binoculars to focus an image on a sheet of white foamcore. The foamcore was mounted on a small easel. "Can you see it?" I asked as I braked to a stop. They generously stepped aside so I could look for myself ... and there it was, clear as sunlight, a tiny black dot crawling across Sol's disc. Even better? They had a pair of "eclipse glasses," and permitted me a direct look. Three and a half hours after the photo in this post, taken in Minneapolis at 6:01 Central, Venus had moved diagonally down and to the right; but you get the idea, just about exactly.

Eerie. As in, chills up and down the spine eerie.

Not that the visual was anything intrinsically spectacular ... big orange circle, little black circle ... but knowing what I was looking at, knowing that it was a sight that will not recur in my lifetime (or yours if you're reading this the week it's posted!), knowing that the little black dot is a planet -- a planet! big! almost as big as Earth! -- really did give me chills, the sort that come when workaday preoccupation falls away and the scale of life, the universe, and everything becomes clear.

As I looked at Venus silhouetted against the sun through my neighbors' dark glasses, Scott Walker was holding onto his governorship in Wisconsin and Orly Taitz was going down to well-earned defeat in California. My apocalypse-facing blog post of the day before -- Human are like rats and cockroaches: the coming feudalism -- was clocking through its thirteen-hundred-somethingth page view where I'd cross-posted it on Daily Kos. A colleague's wife, who has worked at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Lab for many years, was recovering from brain-surgery -- three weeks ago she had a seizure out of the blue and was diagnosed with stage 3 brain cancer. My mind was cluttered with ephemera about a grant proposal due in the middle of the month, a proposal that, if funded, will define my work life through 2014 (and keep me up more than a few nights if past performance is any indicator of future results). Earlier in the day I'd prepared a short story manuscript for e-publication (more on that in a week or two). The drain was running slow in our bathroom sink.

All that while the planet Venus made its stately way across our common sun, getting right smack between where we live and where our local star burns.

Bear with me as I digress further still.....

The Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa is a bit of clay about 6-3/4 x 3-5/8 inches now housed in the British Museum. About twenty-seven hundred years ago, a scribe in Nineveh copied some astronomical records onto this bit of clay. At the time those records were already a thousand years old -- about the span of time between now and the Norman invasion of England back in 1066. The clay tablet records observations by Babylonian astronomers about where and when the planet Venus traveled through Babylonian skies over the course of twenty-one years. Nineveh, you may recall, was a city in what is now northern Iraq. It is best known to westerners as the "exceedingly great city" featured in the Old Testament book of Jonah, a city chock full of wickedness, spared divine destruction when its citizens repented. It happens I have a tenuous connection to scholarship of cuneiform tablets, grounded in a technologist colleague's involvement in a project to help Near Eastern Studies scholars at Berkeley and elsewhere to use social networking algorithms to map people and their social, familial, and professional relationships described in cuneiform corpora -- a mode of study called prosopography ... I gave a talk to a small workshop of cuneiform scholars in March 2010 about what the technology project I work on might do for them, eventually.

Is everything connected, or what?

So I've got all this time and space, transits and orbits, statewide elections and home plumbing problems, ancient history and present illness -- all these telescoping perspectives whirling around in my head as I'm straddling my bicycle, staring wonderstruck at the small black circle superimposed on the big orange circle.

A sound track is called for. And what does the internal DJ queue up?

Nope, not Smashmouth. Good guess, though.

Would it mark me as of a certain age, and a certain sort of sentimentalist, if I admitted it was Joni Mitchell's The Circle Game? 'Cuz, um, it was.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

If nothing else, Tuesday evening proved I'm capable of thinking about something other than the end of the world, even if I do think about the end of the world more often than some.

Life's like that.

Thanks to Tom Ruen for the photo of this week's solar transit of Venus he posted to Wikimedia Commons; and to Fæ for the image of the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa. And to Joni Mitchell, which goes without saying.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Everything relates to everything else
Mental floss
Pacific coast watersheds

1 comment:

  1. Next time when I visit the British Museum, surely I'll see the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa. Thank you!